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How It All Got Started

By Bob Twomey, Rescue Instructor, Pilot Search & Rescue

A few months ago, while just hanging out at the station, a new probationary member and I were talking about rescue, volunteerism, and what motivates a person to want to be a rescuer. The longer we talked, the more he became interested in why normal people want to place themselves in harm’s way, as rescuers, to assist others in a time of peril. Of course, I gave him the TR definition of rescue (the safe removal of a person or persons from a place of danger and injury/death to a place of safety, for the continued immediate administration of medical care and transport to appropriate advanced care). Then he asked the proverbial question: “what made you want to do rescue or be a rescuer 48 years ago”?

I told him and then got to thinking about how I could explain this to Carolina Fire Rescue Journal (CFRJ) readers in a way that would still be instructional, or at least inspirational. So, here goes.

It was May 1973. I was a senior at Christ School, and it was during our final exam week just before graduation. I was in my room studying for the next day’s exams. It had been a normal weather day, except as evening approached, rain began falling. During the evening, it rained harder, then harder still, until by, 10 p.m., the areas out in front of our dorm were flooded due to so much rainfall and runoff that the storm drains were simply overwhelmed. 

Having been working on the school farm for four years, I became concerned about the fields and the school’s dairy livestock, I decided to make a run around campus and the farm. But in doing so, I saw heavier runoff occurring, so I decided to drive down to check the lake above the farm fields to see if the dam was holding up ok. I got three other classmates to go with me. Two were to take one truck and check campus and farm areas. One went with me to check the dam. 

As we approached the dam, we could see by the brilliant and constant flashes of lightning that the lake was not just full, but that the runoff was going through the emergency spillway and overtopping the entire dam! As we rushed back to notify the farm director, we saw emergency vehicles coming down the road running emergency traffic, so we decided to follow them to see where on the property they were responding. As we topped a hill overlooking Roberson Creek, we could see that the entire floodplain was under swift, debris-filled floodwater. (if you recall, I wrote an article for the Summer 2017 CFRJ on dams and problems that can arise with earthen dams, and the Fall 2021 article “When the Ground Moves” about how rainfall and landslides occur for the knowledge of CFRJ readers). The local Rescue Squad had been summoned for victims in the floodwater.

As the rains continued earlier that night, debris had lodged against a small bridge upstream of the school. For hours, an ever-increasing volume of runoff collected upstream of that bridge, forming a massive reservoir of floodwater. Finally, the bridge and the saturated roadway approaches to the bridge gave way under the pressure, releasing a massive volume of floodwater into the Roberson Creek valley. The floodwater inundated a mobile home park, knocking a mobile home off its foundation, carrying it rapidly downstream, crushing open the home, throwing six people into the water. 

According to a local paper article on the flood, two families had gotten into the mobile home that the occupants thought was high enough to have been above the normal floodwater elevations already flooding the rest of the park. But when the bridge failed, the sudden release of the floodwater created a surge of water powerful enough to have carried boulders the size of cars down the channel, as well as trees, other buildings, and infrastructure. Parts of the destroyed mobile home were carried for several miles down the channel, ending up on school farm property. Four of the six people in that home were killed in the floodwater. Three were found on school property and the fourth victim was another half-mile downstream.

We followed the Squad down to the creek, which was now more of a raging river. The two surviving members of the original six were clinging to small trees along the creekbank, with only their heads and shoulders barely visible through the rain. The Squad was unfamiliar with the lay of the floodplain topography and was not equipped to perform floodwater rescues (remember, this was in the early 1970s) They had no boat with them, which would have been essentially useless in the debris-filled floodwater, and rafts were not yet considered as rescue crafts like they are today.

Fearing the exhausted victims could not hold on much longer, we got a farm tractor to serve as an anchor for the rope used to pull the victims to safety. The Squad gave us rope (manilla rope back then). Two of my classmates did a ferry swim out to the victims, tied the running end of the rope to a small tree, and we retrieved them from the floodwater back to the bank, using the tractor to tension the rope which served as a handline. The Squad took charge of the victims once at the edge of the floodwater. 

Knowing the other four victims were still in the water, we assisted the Squad for the rest of the night searching the channel and floodplain for them. The next afternoon, after exams, we returned to assist the Squad, and three of the four victims were located. The fourth was found two days later. 

This was my first ever search of any kind. It was also my first experience seeing deceased victims of any kind of disaster. Apparently, it made an impact on me. In the fall of 1973, I joined Transylvania County Rescue Squad, beginning the now 48-year tenure as a Rescueman. And that’s my story. I am sure you have something in your past that made you feel volunteering in the rescue was the right thing for you to do. Perhaps you should share it with your new rescuers. 

So, rescue-wise, what are some of the main points of this story as they relate to rescue?

As I have said in previous articles over the years, the study of moving water, its powerful forces, the relationship of rainfall, flooding, and landslides is important to know in your communities. Training and certification in Swiftwater rescue and Incident Command Systems (ICS) is critical, no matter where you live. Each year we should all study, learn, practice, and deploy the Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSA’s) in our communities. And over time, practical, hard-earned experience helps, too. It’s who we are. We’re Rescuers!

Bob Twomey has been in the volunteer rescue service for 46 years, having served on five Rescue Squads from the coast to the mountains. He is currently a member of Transylvania County Rescue Squad, past Chief and Training Chief, an EMT for 45 years, and is an IFSAC and OSFM certified Rescue Instructor. Bob has been active in SAR, Mountain Rescue, and teaches high-level rescue. He is the chief pilot of Wolf Tree Aviation, and flies helicopter searches and rescue support locally. He is a Crew Chief for the NC Forest Service. He can be reached at 828-884-7174 or at btwomey@comporium.net.

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